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Fish and Invertebrates Need Better Welfare Laws

Karina Hesselbo


Image via Mercy For Animals.

Note: when invertebrates are mentioned herein, only crustaceans and cephalopods are being discussed.

In 2021, the London School of Economics reviewed over 300 scientific papers looking at pain in cephalopods and crustaceans. After the review, it concluded that there was enough evidence to suggest that both groups were capable of feeling pain. This finding is crucial, as crustaceans and cephalopods are two of several aquatic animal groupings that continue to be excluded from laws around the world intended to preserve the rights of animals, known as welfare laws. For instance, in the US, octopuses are not covered by welfare laws in laboratories, and, in the UK, crustaceans were not included in the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act of 1986. Although these are just two examples of the utter disregard for invertebrates and fish by different countries’ legal codes, there are plenty of other instances out there that proliferate the idea that these animals should not be protected.

The exclusion of these animals from welfare laws is concerning given the large scale on which we consume and inhumanely treat them. An estimated 100 billion farmed fish and 350-400 billion farmed shrimp are killed annually, and around 2-3 trillion fish are caught in the wild each year. In comparison, 50 billion chickens and 15 billion cows are killed each year. If aquatic animals are killed in substantially higher numbers than their terrestrial counterparts, why do fish and invertebrates receive far less international intervention regarding their protection?

Well, the main reason for this exclusion is the belief that these animals cannot feel pain. This misconception stems from ideas regarding the anatomy of fish and invertebrates. For instance, fish are known to lack a neocortex, an area of the brain involved in processing pain. However, they do have nociceptors, which are nerve cells that also detect pain. There are studies that demonstrate their ability to feel and avoid pain, such as a study in which zebrafish were given the option between a stimulating or barren tank. They preferred the stimulating tank until it was injected with acid; at this point, they quickly migrated toward the barren tank, which was flooded with painkillers.

As for crustaceans and cephalopods, this belief comes from the fact that they are invertebrates. The idea that invertebrates cannot feel pain comes from their lack of a central nervous system and certain areas of the brain present in other animal taxa. However, there is considerable variation between different species classified as “invertebrates,” ranging anywhere from a sponge to a squid. To group them all together based on this single premise undermines the fact that the vast majority of them still react to forms of stimuli reminiscent of pain in protective ways. Furthermore, cephalopods and crustaceans may be invertebrates, but they have brains capable of sentience - sometimes even of high intelligence -, yet they are often treated with the same respect as a Brussels sprout.

So long as this belief is maintained, and without welfare laws on their behalf, invertebrates and fish will continue to be treated horribly. There are many cruel treatments inflicted upon fish and invertebrates on a massive scale. Lobsters are mutilated and boiled alive, octopuses are asphyxiated and clubbed to death, and fish are crammed tightly together with little stimulation on many fish farms. All of this is because we view them as “lesser” compared to other animals.

Thankfully, things are starting to change. Some places have officially banned the boiling of lobsters. People are beginning to campaign for their inclusion in welfare laws. It is time for the world to recognize the atrocious ways that these animals are being treated and finally hold them to the welfare standards they deserve.

To get started, it’s recommended to sign this petition to stop octopus farming from coming to Canada.



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